Learning Theories: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism

Remembering that adult learners have different learning needs

To understand the education inside, we first need to understand how we learn. (Unsplash)

By Dave Donohue

As part of the instructor development process, instructor candidates are exposed to learning principles, theories, and concepts but often do not see the practical application as they instruct and develop emergency services training and education. This article reviews the learning theories associated with Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism and discusses how they can best be applied in the classroom and on the training ground to make learning more effective. 


Behaviorism was born from research done by Ivan Pavlov in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pavlov’s research into animal digestion led to the recognition that the animals that were being studied would salivate when the lab assistant assigned to feed them entered the room, whether food was being handled or not. Pavlov recognized that the animals had begun to associate the lab assistant with food and that the unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimuli, salivating when food was present, was replaced with an conditioned response to a conditioned stimuli. In further experiments, Pavlov was able to replace the original triggering stimuli (the lab assistant) with a new stimuli (a bell ringing) to achieve the response.  Later, he conditioned the animals so that the learned response to stimuli was unlearned, so that the dogs would no longer salivate when a bell was rung. This process of connecting neutral stimuli to achieve conditioned responses is known as classical conditioning.

John Watson built on Pavlov’s studies and applied the theory of conditioning to human development and learning, so that, “learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus that already brings about a particular response (reflex) with a new (conditioned) stimulus.” The use of rewards and punishments to change behavior and teach new skills became the cornerstone of behaviorism.  In behaviorism, learning is demonstrated through action and must be observable and reflected in behavior.  At its essence, behaviorism is built on cause and effective, where a stimulus is responded to and behaviors are trained and moldable with the right mix of reward and punishment.  Further studies looked at the role of voluntary action, such as intentionally performing an act, for a reward.  These studies identified that increasing the reward resulted in increasing the likelihood of the action being repeated. 

As trainers and educators, the use of rewards and punishments can be balanced to achieve results.  This includes the use of desirable or undesirable activities to achieve the training goals.  For example, social recognition and praise, from gold stars to awards, have been found to reinforce the likelihood of desired actions being repeated.  Similarly, desired activities, such as providing recreation time or desired assignments, can result in desired behaviors becoming instilled as habit.  By contrast, disincentives can be used to limit the recurrence of undesired behaviors and guide participants toward the desired actions. 

Behaviorism is most effective when the new knowledge or skill has only a single correct answer or way of being accomplished or in activities where thought and application variations are minimized.  There should only be a single right answer.  Behaviorism can also be effectively applied to social training and rule following, with rewards given for following the rules.  To be most effective, participants should be aware of the rules at the beginning of the training session and the instructor should describe the expected standard of performance.


Cognitivism added to the theories of behaviorism by looking at learners not as blank slates but as individuals with unique points of view, experiences, and knowledge, and instructors should build on these to meet the learning needs of participants.  Recognizing that learners have subjective views of knowledge means that lessons and activities may have different outcomes based on the learners’ experiences.  In addition, students constantly seek to develop a working model of the world and how it works and seek to fit newly acquired knowledge and skills into their perceptions.  While the instructor is viewed as the expert imparting knowledge to unknowing students in the behaviorist classroom, cognitivist instructors seek to guide students across a zone of proximal develop, bridging what participants know with what they don’t know.  Instructors seek to assist students in incorporating new knowledge and skills into their intellectual framework and modify their perceptions of the world as needed.  Instructors apply cognitivism by asking questions to help learners refine their thinking.  Instructors can also use games, puzzles, flash cards, and other means to create disequilibrium and which require the student to adapt and learn to continue.

Constructivism and Connectivism

Constructivist learning theory is built on the concept that learners actively build their own knowledge, that it is based on personal meaning, and that it is guided by prior knowledge and events.  New knowledge and skills modify what is already known, and learning occurs when the new knowledge is used to engage in problem solving, experiments, and/or application.  In short, without application, information may be received, but understanding does not occur.  In addition, learning is a social activity that involves sharing and application through the zone of proximal development.  Connectivism adds to constructivism to explain how the Internet has created and allowed the sharing of information across the world.  Information and knowledge are no longer stored entirely within the individual or small group but throughout the world.  Instructors focus on providing context, interpretation, and judgment of stored knowledge and help guide learners to reputable sources.  Through connectivism, learning is no longer a classroom-centric activity and the role of peer networks is even greater in storing, interpreting, and applying knowledge.  In the classroom, both knowledge and authority are shared, with instructors guiding learners who operate in heterogeneous groups to acquire and apply knowledge.  The role of the instructor is to create a collaborative, problem-solving environment and provide scaffolding in the form of hints, clues, and activities that are adapted to the needs of the learner.

Constructivist Teaching Behaviors (Brooks and Brooks, 1993)

  1. Encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative.
  2. Use raw data and primary sources, along with manipulative, interactive, and physical materials.
  3. When framing tasks, use cognitive terminology, such as “classify, analyze, predict, and create.”
  4. Allow student responses to drive lessons, shift instructor strategies, and alter content.
  5. Inquire about students’ understanding of the concepts before sharing (your) own understanding of those concepts.
  6. Encourage students to engage in dialogue, both with the teacher and with one another.
  7. Encourage student inquiry by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions, and encourage students to ask questions of each other.
  8. Seek elaboration of students’ initial responses.
  9. Engage students in experiences that might engender contradictions to their initial hypothesis and then encourage discussion.
  10. Allow wait time after posing questions.
  11. Provide time for students to construct relationships and create metaphors.
  12. Nurture students’ natural curiosity through frequent use of the learning cycle model.

Goals of the Constructivist Classroom

  1. Students determine how they will learn.
  2. Evaluation of alternative solutions.
  3. Realistic tasks are embedded in the learning.
  4. Student-centered.
  5. Collaboration is valued.
  6. Multiple modes of instruction are used.
  7. Encourage awareness of the knowledge contraction process (reflection, metcognition).

Understanding basic learning theory allows the instructor to develop and present course materials in a manner that best meets the needs of the learner.  Based on learner development, capabilities, experiences, and life stage, instructors may use different learning theories to share knowledge and improve learner abilities.  Remembering that adult learners have different learning needs and may have had different learning models used during their development, instructors should be fluent in the theories and able to shift between models based on the needs of the learner to fully meet the learning objectives.


Flippen, C. (2019). Cognitivism.  Retrieved from https://edtechtheory.weebly.com/cognitivism.html.

Krist2366. (2015). Connectivism (Siemens, Downes). Learning Theories.  www.learning-theories.com/connectivism-Siemens-Downes.html.

The Peak Performance Center. (n.d.) Learning Cycle.  https://thepeakperformancecenter.com/educational-learning/learning/process/learning-cycle/.

Brooks, J. & Brooks, M. (1993). In search of understanding: the case for constructivist classrooms.  ASCD. NDT Resource Center Data Base.

McLeod, D. (2019). Constructivism: as a theory for teaching and learning.  https://www.simplypsychology.org/constructivism.html.

Drew, C. (2020). Behaviorism-Skinners education learning theory (2020).  https://helpfulprofessor.com/behaviorism/#:~text=Pros%20and%cons%20behaviorism%20in%20education.

McLeod, S. (2013). Pavlov’s dogs. www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html.

Dave Donohue has 40 years of fire, EMS, and emergency management experience serving in volunteer, military, and career organizations across all ranks. He volunteers with the Community Volunteer Fire Company of District 12in Maryland; instructs for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute; and works at a fire, EMS, and emergency management education and training facility in Emmitsburg, MD. He can be reached at dkdonohue@aol.com.

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